"I shall have to leave you for some hours," he said.
"Oh, never mind that!" she answered, "Just be as quick as you can, that's all! I will be with him. I—shan't be afraid."
She was urging him to the door, but he turned back. He went to the table, picked up the revolver he had laid there, and put it away in a cupboard which he locked.
She marked the action, and as he came to her again, laid a trembling hand upon his arm. "Burke! Could it—could it have been an accident?"
"No. It couldn't," said Burke. He paused a moment, looking at her in a way she did not understand. She wondered afterwards what had been passing in his mind. But he said no further word except a brief, "Good-bye!"
Ten minutes later, she heard the quick thud of his horse's hoofs as he rode into the night.
Was it a voice that spoke in the overwhelming silence, or was it the echo in her soul of a voice that would never speak again? Sylvia could not decide. She had sat for so long, propped against a chair, watching that still figure on the floor, straining her senses to see or hear some sign of breathing, trying to cheat herself into the belief that he slept, and then with a wrung heart wondering if he were not better dead.
All memory of the bitterness and the cruel disappointment that he had brought into her life had rolled away from her during those still hours of watching. She did not think of herself at all; only of Guy, once so eager and full of sparkling hope, now so tragically fallen in the race of life. All her woman's tenderness was awake and throbbing with a passionate pity for this lover of her youth. Why, oh why had he done this thing? The horror of it oppressed her like a crushing, physical weight. Was it for this that she had persuaded Burke to rescue him from the depths to which he had sunk? Had she by her rash interference only precipitated his final doom—she who had suffered so deeply for his sake, who had yearned so ardently to bring him back?
Burke had been against it from the beginning; Burke knew to his cost the hopelessness of it all. Ah, would it have been better if she had listened to him and refrained from attempting the impossible? Would it not have been preferable to accept failure rather than court disaster? What had she done? What had she done?
Surely the old Guy was speaking to her! Those pallid lips could make no sound; the new, strange Guy was dead.
As in a dream, she answered him through the silence, feeling as if she spoke into the shadows of the Unknown.
"Yes, Guy? Yes? I am here."
"Will you—forgive me," he said, "for making—a boss shot!"
Then she turned to the prostrate form beside her on the floor, and saw that the light of understanding had come back into those haunted eyes.
She knelt over him and laid her hand upon his rough hair. "Oh, Guy, hush—hush!" she said. "Thank God you are still here!"
A very strange expression flitted over his upturned face, a look that was indescribably boyish and yet so sad that she caught her breath to still the intolerable pain at her heart.
"I shan't be—long." he said. "Thank God for that—too! I've been—working myself up to it—all day."
"Guy!" she said.
He made a slight movement of one hand, and she gathered it close into her own. It seemed to her that the Shadow of Death had drawn very near to them, enveloping them both.
"It had—to be," he said, in the husky halting voice so unfamiliar to her. "It—was a mistake—to try to bring me back. I'm—beyond—redemption. Ask Burke;—he knows!"
"You are not—you are not!" she told him vehemently. "Guy!" She was holding his hand hard pressed against her heart; her words came with a rush of pitying tenderness that swept over every barrier. "Guy! I want you! You must stay. If you go now—you—you will break my heart."
His eyes kindled a little at her words, but in a moment the emotion passed. "It's too late, my dear;—too late," he said and turned his head on the pillow under it as if seeking rest. "You don't—understand. Just as well for me perhaps. But I'm better gone—for your sake, better gone."
The conviction of his words went through her like a sword-thrust. He seemed to have passed beyond her influence, almost, she fancied, not to care. Yet why did the look in his eyes make her think of a lost child—frightened, groping along an unknown road in the dark? Why did his hand cling to hers as though it feared to let go?
She held it very tightly as she made reply. "But, Guy, it isn't for us to choose. It isn't for us to discharge ourselves. Only God knows when our work is done."
He groaned. "I've given all mine to the devil. God couldn't use me if He tried."
"You don't know," she said. "You don't know. We're none of us saints, I think He makes allowances—when things go wrong with us—just as—just as we make allowances for each other."
He groaned again. "You would make allowances for the devil himself," he muttered. "It's the way you're made. But it isn't justice. Burke would tell you that."
An odd little tremor of impatience went through her. "I know you better than Burke does," she said. "Better, probably—than anyone else in the world."
He turned his head to and fro upon the pillow. "You don't know me, Sylvia. You don't know me—at all."
Yet the husky utterance seemed to plead with her as though he longed for her to understand.
She stooped lower over him. "Never mind, dear! I love you all the same," she said. "And that's why I can't bear you—to go—like this." Her voice shook unexpectedly. She paused to steady it. "Guy," she urged, almost under her breath at length, "you will live—you will try to live—for my sake?"
Again his eyes were upon her. Again, more strongly, the flame kindled. Then, very suddenly, a hard shudder went through him, and a dreadful shadow arose and quenched that vital gleam. For a few moments consciousness itself seemed to be submerged in the most awful suffering that Sylvia had ever beheld. His eyeballs rolled upwards under lids that twitched convulsively. The hand she held closed in an agonized grip upon her own. She thought that he was dying, and braced herself instinctively to witness the last terrible struggle, the rending asunder of soul and body.
Then—as one upon the edge of an abyss—he spoke, his voice no more than a croaking whisper.
"It's hell for me—either way. Living or dead—hell!"
The paroxysm spent itself and passed like an evil spirit. The struggle for which she had prepared herself did not come. Instead, the flickering lids closed over the tortured eyes, the clutching hand relaxed, and there fell a great silence.
She sat for a long time not daring to move, scarcely breathing, wondering if this were the end. Then gradually it came to her, that he was lying in the stillness of utter exhaustion. She felt for his pulse and found it beating, weakly but unmistakably. He had sunk into a sleep which she realized might be the means of saving his life.
Thereafter she sat passive, leaning against a chair, waiting, watching, as she had waited and watched for so long. Once she leaned her head upon her hand and prayed "O dear God, let him live!" But something—some inner voice—seemed to check that prayer, and though her whole soul yearned for its fulfilment she did not repeat it. Only, after a little, she stooped very low, and touched Guy's forehead with her lips.
"God bless you!" she said softly. "God bless you!"
And in the silence that followed, she thought there was a benediction.
THE DESIRE TO LIVE
In the last still hour before the dawn there came the tread of horses' feet outside the bungalow and the sound of men's voices.
Sylvia looked up as one emerging from a long, long dream, though she had not closed her eyes all night. The lamp was burning low, and Guy's face was in deep shadow; but she knew by the hand that she still held close between her own that he yet lived. She even fancied that the throb of his pulse was a little stronger.
She looked at Burke with questioning, uncertain eyes as he entered. In the dim light he seemed to her bigger, more imposing, more dominant, than he had ever seemed before. He rolled a little as he walked as if stiff from long hours in the saddle.
Behind him came another man—a small thin man with sleek black hair and a swarthy Jewish face, who moved with a catlike deftness, making no sound at all.
"Well, Sylvia?" Burke said. "Is he alive?"
He took the lamp from the table, and cast its waning light full upon her. She shrank a little involuntarily from the sudden glare. Almost without knowing it, she pressed Guy's inert hand to her breast. The dream was still upon her. It was hardly of her own volition that she answered him.
"Yes, he is alive. He has been speaking. I think he is asleep."
"Permit me!" the stranger said.
He knelt beside the still form while Burke held the lamp. He opened the shirt and exposed the blood-soaked bandage.
Then suddenly he looked at Sylvia with black eyes of a most amazing brightness. "Madam, you cannot help here. You had better go."
Somehow he made her think of a raven, unscrupulous, probably wholly without pity, possibly wicked, and overwhelmingly intelligent. She avoided his eyes instinctively. They seemed to know too much.
"Will he—do you think he win—live?" she whispered.
He made a gesture of the hands that seemed to indicate infinite possibilities. "I do not think at present. But I must be undisturbed. Go to your room, madam, and rest! Your husband will come to you later and tell you what I have done—or failed to do."
He spoke with absolute fluency but with a foreign accent. His hands were busy with the bandages, dexterous, clawlike hands that looked as if they were delving for treasure.
She watched him, speechless and fascinated, for a few seconds. Then Burke set the lamp upon the chair against which she had leaned all the night, and bent down to her.
"Let me help you!" he said.
A shuddering horror of the sight before her came upon her. She yielded herself to him in silence. She was shivering violently from head to foot. Her limbs were so numb she could not stand. He raised her and drew her away.
The next thing she knew was that she was sitting on the bed in her own room, and he was making her drink brandy and water in so burning a mixture that it stung her throat.
She tried to protest, but he would take no refusal till she had swallowed what he had poured out. Then he put down the glass, tucked her feet up on the bed with an air of mastery, and spread a rug over her.
He would have left her then with a brief injunction to remain where she was, but she caught and held his arm so that he was obliged to pause.
"Burke, is that dreadful man a doctor?"
"The only one I could get hold of," said Burke. "Yes, he's a doctor all right. Saul Kieff his name is. I admit he's a scoundrel, but anyway he's keen on his job."
"You think he'll save Guy?" she said tremulously. "Oh, Burke, he must be saved! He must be saved!"
An odd look came into Burke's eyes. She remembered it later, though it was gone in an instant like the sudden flare of lightning across a dark sky.
"We shall do our best," he said. "You stay here till I come back!"
She let him go. Somehow that look had given her a curious shock though she did not understand it. She heard the door shut firmly behind him, and she huddled herself down upon the pillow and lay still.
She wished he had not made her drink that fiery draught. All her senses were in a tumult, and yet her body felt as if weighted with lead. She lay listening tensely for every sound, but the silence was like a blanket wrapped around her—a blanket which nothing seemed to penetrate.
It seemed to overwhelm her at last, that silence, to blot out the clamour of her straining nerves, to deprive her of the power to think. Though she did not know it, the stress of that night's horror and vigil had worn her out. She sank at length into a deep sleep from which it seemed that nought could wake her. And when more than an hour later, Burke came, treading softly, and looked upon her, he did not need to keep that burning hunger-light out of his eyes. For she was wholly unconscious of him as though her spirit were in another world.
He looked and looked with a gaze that seemed as if it would consume her. And at last he leaned over her, with arms outspread, and touched her sunny, disordered hair with his lips. It was the lightest touch, far too light to awaken her. But, as if some happy thought had filtered down through the deeps of her repose, she stirred in her sleep. She turned her face up to him with the faint smile of a slumbering child.
"Good night!" she murmured drowsily.
Her eyes half-opened upon him. She gave him her lips.
And as he stooped, with a great tremor, to kiss them, "Good night, dear—Guy!" Her voice was fainter, more indistinct. She sank back again into that deep slumber from which she had barely been roused.
And Burke went from her with the flower-like memory of her kiss upon his lips, and the dryness of ashes in his mouth.
It was several hours later that Sylvia awoke to full consciousness and a piercing realization of a strange presence that watched by her side.
She opened her eyes wide with a curious conviction that there was a cat in the room, and then all in a moment she met the cool, repellent stare of the black-browed doctor whom Burke had brought from Ritzen.
A little quiver of repugnance went through her at the sight, swiftly followed by a sharp thrill of indignation. What was he doing seated there by her side—this swarthy-faced stranger whom she had disliked instinctively at first sight?
And then—suddenly it rushed through her mind that he was the bearer of evil tidings, that he had come to tell her that Guy was dead. She raised herself sharply.
"Oh, what is it? What is it?" she gasped. "Tell me quickly! It's better for me to know. It's better for me to know."
He put out a narrow, claw-like hand and laid it upon her arm. His eyes were like onyxes, Oriental, quite emotionless.
"Do not agitate yourself, madam!" he said. "My patient is better. I think, that with care—he may live. That is, if he finds it worth while."
"What do you mean?" she said in a whisper.
That there was a veiled meaning to his words she was assured at the outset. His whole bearing conveyed something mysterious, something sinister, to her startled imagination. She wanted to shake off the hand upon her arm, but she had to suffer it though the man's bare touch revolted her.
He was leaning slightly towards her, but yet his face was utterly inanimate. It was obvious that though he had imposed his personality upon her with a definite end in view, he was personally totally indifferent as to whether he achieved that end or not.
"I mean," he said, after a quiet pause, "that the desire to live is sometimes the only medicine that is of any avail. I know Guy Ranger. He is a fool in many ways, but not in all. He is not for instance fool enough to hang on to life if it holds nothing worth having. He was born with an immense love of life. He would not have done this thing if he had not somehow lost this gift—for it is a gift. If he does not get it back—somehow—then," the black, stony eyes looked into hers without emotion—"he will die."
She shrank at the cold deliberation of his words. "Oh no—no! Not like this! Not—by his own hand!"
"Ah!" He leaned towards her, bringing his sallow, impassive countenance close to hers, repulsively close, to her over-acute sensibilities. "And how is that to be prevented? Who is to give him that priceless remedy—the only medicine that can save him? Can I?" He lifted his shoulders expressively, indicating his own helplessness. And then in a voice dropped to a whisper, "Can you?"
She did not answer him. There was something horrible to her in that low-spoken question, something that yet possessed for her a species of evil fascination that restrained her from open revolt.
He waited for a while, his eyes so immovably fixed upon hers that she had a mild wonder if they were lidless—as the eyes of a serpent.
Then at last, through grim pale lips that did not seem to move, he spoke again. "Madam, it lies with you whether Guy Ranger lives or dies. You can open to him the earthly paradise or you can hurl him back to hell. I have only Drought him a little way. I cannot keep him. Even now, he is slipping—he is slipping from my hold. It is you, and you alone, who can save him. How do I know this thing? How do I know that the sun rises in the east? I—have—seen. It is you who have taken from him the desire to live—perhaps unintentionally; that I do not know. It is you—and you alone—who can restore it. Need I say more than this to open your eyes? Perhaps they are already open. Perhaps already your heart has been in communion with his. If so, then you know that I have told you the truth. If you really desire to save him—and I think you do—then everything else in life must go to that end. Women were made for sacrifice, they say." A sardonic flicker that was scarcely a smile touched his face. "Well, that is the only way of saving him. If you fail him, he will go under."
He got up with the words. He had evidently said his say. As his hand left hers, Sylvia drew a deep hard breath, as of one emerging from a suffocating atmosphere. She had never felt so oppressed, so fettered, with evil in the whole of her life. And yet he had not urged her to any line of action. He had merely somewhat baldly, wholly dispassionately, told her the truth, and the very absence of emotion with which he had spoken had driven conviction to her soul. She saw him go with relief, but his words remained like a stone at the bottom of her heart.
When Sylvia went to Guy a little later, she found him installed in Burke's room. Burke himself was out on the farm, but it was past the usual hour for luncheon, and she knew he would be returning soon.
Kieff rose up noiselessly from the bedside at her entrance, and she saw that Guy was asleep. She was conscious of a surging, passionate longing to be alone with him as she crept forward. The silent presence of this stranger had a curious, nauseating effect upon her. She suppressed a shudder as she passed him.
He stood behind her in utter immobility as she bent over the bed. Guy was lying very still, but though he was pale, the deathly look had gone from his face. He looked unutterably tired, but very peaceful.
Lying so, with all the painful lines of his face relaxed, she saw the likeness of his boyhood very clearly on his quiet features, and her heart gave a quick hard throb within her that sent the hot tears to her eyes. The sight of him grew blurred and dim. She just touched his black hair with trembling fingers as she fought back a sob.
And then quite suddenly his eyes were open, looking at her. The pupils were enormously enlarged, giving him an unfamiliar look. But at sight of her, a quick smile flashed across his face—his old glad smile of welcome, and she knew him again. "Hullo—darling!" he said.
She could not speak in answer. She could only lay her hand over his and hold it fast.
He went on, his speech rapid, slightly incoherent. Guy had been like that, she remembered, in moments of any excitement or stress.
"I've had a beastly bad dream, sweetheart. Thought I'd lost you—somehow I was messing about in a filthy fog, and there were beastly precipices about. And you—you were calling somewhere—telling me not to forget something. What was it? I'm dashed if I can remember now."
"It—doesn't matter," she managed to say, though her voice was barely audible.
He opened his eyes a little wider. "Are you crying, I say? What's the matter? What, darling? You're not crying for me? Eh? I shall get over it. I always come up again. Ask Kelly! Ask Kieff!"
"Yes, you always come up again," Kieff said, in his brief, mechanical voice.
Guy threw him a look that was a curious blend of respect and disgust. "Hullo, Lucifer!" he said. "What are you doing here? Come to show us the quickest way to hell? He's an authority on that, Sylvia. He knows all the shortest cuts."
He broke off with a sudden hard breath, and Sylvia saw again that awful shadow gather in his eyes. She made way for Kieff, though not consciously at his behest, and there followed a dreadful struggling upon which she could not look. Kieff spoke once or twice briefly, authoritatively, and was answered by a sound more anguished than any words. Then at the end of several unspeakable seconds she heard Burke's footstep outside the door. She turned to him as he entered, with a thankfulness beyond all expression.
"Oh, Burke, he is suffering—so terribly. Do see if you can help!"
He passed her swiftly and went to the other side of the bed. Somehow his presence braced her. She looked again upon Guy in his extremity.
He was propped against Kieff's shoulder, his face quite livid, his eyes roaming wildly round the room, till suddenly they found and rested upon her own. All her life Sylvia was to remember the appeal those eyes held for her. It was as if his soul were crying aloud to her for freedom.
She came to the foot of the bed. The anguish had entered into her also, and it was more than she could bear.
She turned from Burke to Kieff. "Oh, do anything—anything—to help him!" she implored him. "Don't let him suffer—like this!"
Kieff's hand went to his pocket. "There is only one thing," he said.
Burke, his arm behind Guy's convulsed body, made an abrupt gesture with his free hand. "Wait! He'll come through it. He did before."
And still those tortured eyes besought Sylvia, urged her, entreated her.
She left the foot of the bed, and went to Kieff. Her lips felt stiff and numb, but she forced them to speak.
"If you have anything that will help him, give it to him now! Don't wait! Don't wait!"
Kieff the impassive, nodded briefly, and took his hand from his pocket.
"Wait! He is better," Burke said.
But, "Don't wait! Don't wait!" whispered Sylvia. "Don't let him die—like this!"
Kieff held out to her a small leather case. "Open it!" he said.
She obeyed him though her hands were trembling. She took out the needle and syringe it contained.
Burke said no more. Perhaps he realized that the cause was already lost. And so he looked on in utter silence while Sylvia and Kieff between them administered the only thing that could ease the awful suffering that seemed greater than flesh and blood could bear.
It took effect with marvellous quickness—that remedy of Kieff's. It was, to Sylvia's imagination, like the casting forth of a demon. Guy's burning eyes ceased to implore her. He strained no longer in the cruel grip. His whole frame relaxed, and he even smiled at her as they laid him back against the pillows.
"That's better," he said.
"Thank God!" Sylvia whispered.
His eyes were drooping heavily. He tried to keep them open. "Hold my hand!" he murmured to her.
She sat on the edge of the bed, and took it between her own.
His finger pressed hers. "That's good, darling. Now I'm happy. Wish we—could go on like this—always. Don't you?"
"No," she whispered back. "I want you well again."
"Ah!" His eyes were closing; he opened them again. "You mean that, sweetheart? You really want me?"
"Of course I do," she said.
Guy was still smiling but there was pathos in his smile. "Ah, that makes a difference," he said, "—all the difference. That means you've quite forgiven me. Quite, Sylvia?"
"Quite," she answered, and she spoke straight from her heart. She had forgotten Burke, forgotten Kieff, forgotten everyone in that moment save Guy, the dear lover of her youth.
And he too was looking at her with eyes that saw her alone. "Kiss me, little sweetheart!" he said softly. "And then I'll know—for sure."
It was boyishly spoken, and she could not refuse. She had no thought of refusing.
As in the old days when they had been young together, her heart responded to the call of his. She leaned down to him instantly and very lovingly, and kissed him.
"Sure you want me?" whispered Guy.
"God knows I do," she answered him very earnestly.
He smiled at her and closed his eyes. "Good night!" he murmured.
"Good night, dear!" she whispered back.
And then in the silence that followed she knew that he fell asleep.
Someone touched her shoulder, and she looked up. Burke was standing by her side.
"You can leave him now," he said. "He won't wake."
He spoke very quietly, but she thought his face was stern. A faint throb of misgiving went through her. She slipped her hand free and rose.
She saw that Kieff had already gone, and for a moment she hesitated. But Burke took her steadily by the arm, and led her from the room.
"He won't wake," he reiterated. "You must have something to eat,"
They entered the sitting-room, and she saw with relief that Kieff was not there either. The table was spread for luncheon, and Burke led her to it.
"Sit down!" he said. "Never mind about Kieff! He can look after himself."
She sat down in silence. Somehow she felt out of touch with Burke at that moment. Her long vigil beside Guy seemed in some inexplicable fashion to have cut her off from him. Or was it those strange words that Kieff had uttered and which even yet were running in her brain? Whatever it was, it prevented all intimacy between them. They might have been chance-met strangers sitting at the same board. He waited upon her as if he were thinking of other things.
Her own thoughts were with Guy alone. She ate mechanically, half unconsciously watching the door, her ears strained to catch any sound.
"He will probably sleep for hours," Burke said, breaking the silence.
She looked at him with a start. She had almost forgotten his presence. She met his eyes and felt for a few seconds oddly disconcerted. It was with an effort she spoke in answer.
"I hope he will. That suffering is so terrible."
"It's bad enough," said Burke. "But the morphia habit is worse. That's damnable."
She drew a sharp breath. She felt almost as if he had struck her over the heart. "Oh, but surely—" she said—"surely—having it just once—like that——"
"Do you think he is the sort of man to be satisfied with just once of anything?" said Burke.
The question did not demand an answer, she made none. With an effort she controlled her distress and changed the subject.
"How long will Dr. Kieff stay?"
Burke's eyes were upon her again. She wished he would not look at her so intently. "He will probably see him through," he said. "How long that will take it is impossible to say. Not long, I hope."
"You don't like him?" she ventured.
"Personally," said Burke, "I detest him. He is not out here in his professional capacity. In fact I have a notion that he was kicked out of that some years ago. But that doesn't prevent him being a very clever surgeon. He likes a job of this kind."
Sylvia caught at the words. "Then he ought to succeed," she said. "Surely he will succeed!"
"I think you may trust him to do his best," Burke said.
They spoke but little during the rest of the meal. There seemed to be nothing to say. In some curious fashion Sylvia felt paralyzed. She could not turn her thought in any but the one direction, and she knew subtly but quite unmistakably that in this they were not in sympathy. It was a relief to her when Burke rose from the table. She was longing to get back to Guy. She had an almost overwhelming desire to be alone with him, even though he lay unconscious of her. They had known each other so long ago, before she had come to this land of strangers. Was it altogether unnatural that meeting thus again the old link should have been forged anew? And his need of her was so great—infinitely greater now than it had ever been before.
She lingered a few moments to set the table in order for Kieff; then turned to go to him, and was surprised to find Burke still standing by the door.
She looked at him questioningly, and as if in answer he laid his hand upon her shoulder, detaining her. He did not speak immediately, and she had a curious idea that he was embarrassed.
"What is it, partner?" she said, withdrawing her thoughts from Guy with a conscious effort.
He bent slightly towards her. His hold upon her was not wholly steady. It was as if some hidden force vibrated strongly within him, making itself felt to his very finger-tips. Yet his face was perfectly composed, even grim, as he said, "There is one thing I want to say to you before you go. Sylvia, I haven't asserted any right over you so far. But don't forget—don't let anyone induce you to forget—that the right is mine! I may claim it—some day."
That aroused her from preoccupation very effectually. The colour flamed in her face. "Burke! I don't understand you!" she said, speaking quickly and rather breathlessly, for her heart was beating fast and hard. "Have you gone mad?"
"No, I am not mad," he said, and faintly smiled.
"I am just looking after our joint interests, that's all."
She opened her eyes wide. "Still I don't understand you," she said. "I thought you promised—I thought we agreed—that you were never to interfere with my liberty."
"Unless you abused it," said Burke.
She flinched a little in spite of herself, so uncompromising were both his tone and attitude. But in a moment she drew herself erect, facing him fearlessly.
"I don't think you know—quite—what you are saying to me," she said. "You are tired, and you are looking at things—all crooked. Will you please take a rest this afternoon? I am sure you need it. And to-night—" She paused a moment, for, her courage notwithstanding, she had begun to tremble—"to-night,"—she said again, and still paused, feeling his hand tighten upon her, feeling her heart quicken almost intolerably under its weight.
"Yes?" he said, his voice low, intensely quiet, "Please finish! What am I to do to-night?"
She faced him bravely, with all her strength. "I hope," she said, "you will come and tell me you are sorry."
He threw up his head with a sharp gesture. She saw his eyes kindle and burn with a flame she dared not meet.
A swift misgiving assailed her. She tried to release herself, but he took her by the other shoulder also, holding her before him.
"And if I do all that," he said, a deep quiver in his voice that thrilled her through and through, "what shall I get in return? How shall I be rewarded?"
She gripped her self-control with a great effort, summoning that high courage of hers which had never before failed her.
She smiled straight up at him, a splendid, resolute smile. "You shall have—the kiss of peace," she said.
His expression changed. For a moment his hold became a grip that hurt her—bruised her. She closed her eyes with an involuntary catch of the breath, waiting, expecting she knew not what. Then, very suddenly, the strain was over. He set her free and turned from her.
"Thank you." he said, in a voice that sounded oddly strangled. "But I don't find that—especially satisfying—just now."
His hands were clenched as he left her. She did not dare to follow him or call him back.
THE NEW ERA
Looking back later, it almost seemed to Sylvia that the days that followed were as an interval between two acts in the play of life. It was a time of transition, though what was happening within her she scarcely realized.
One thing only did she fully recognize, and that was that the old frank comradeship between herself and Burke had come to an end. During all the anxiety of those days and the many fluctuations through which Guy passed, Burke came and went as an outsider, scarcely seeming to be interested in what passed, never interfering. He never spoke to Kieff unless circumstances compelled him, and with Sylvia herself he was so reticent as to be almost forbidding. Her mind was too full of Guy, too completely occupied with the great struggle for his life, to allow her thoughts to dwell very much upon any other subject. She saw that Burke's physical wants were attended to, and that was all that she had time for just then. He was sleeping in the spare hut which she had prepared for Guy with such tender care, and she was quite satisfied as to his comfort there. It came to be something of a relief when every evening he betook himself thither. Though she never actually admitted it to herself, she was always more at ease when he was out of the bungalow.
She and Kieff were fighting inch by inch to save Guy, and she could not endure any distractions while the struggle lasted. For it was a desperate fight, and there was little rest for either of them. Her first sensation of repugnance for this man had turned into a species of unwilling admiration, His adroitness, his resource, the almost uncanny power of his personality, compelled her to a curious allegiance. She gave him implicit obedience, well knowing that, though in all else they were poles asunder, in this thing they were as one. They were allied in the one great effort to defeat the Destroyer. They fought day and night, shoulder to shoulder, never yielding, never despairing, never slacking.
And very gradually at last the tide that had ebbed so low began to turn. Through bitter suffering, often against his will, Guy Ranger was drawn slowly back again to the world he had so nearly left. Kieff never let him suffer for long. He gave him oblivion whenever the weakened endurance threatened to fail. And Sylvia, seeing that the flickering strength was always greater under the influence of Kieff's remedy, raised no protest. They fought death with the weapon of death. It would be time enough when the battle was won to cast that weapon aside.
During those days of watching and conflict, she held little converse with Guy. He was like a child, content in his waking hours to have her near him, and fretful if she were ever absent. Under Kieff's guidance, she nursed him with unfailing care, developing a skill with which she had never credited herself. As gradually his strength returned, he would have her do everything for him, resenting even Kieff's interference though never actively resisting his authority. He seemed to stand in awe of Kieff, Sylvia noticed, a feeling from which she herself was not wholly free. For there was a subtle mastery about him which influenced her in spite of herself. But she had put aside her instinctive dislike of the man because of the debt she owed him. He had brought Guy back, had wrenched him from the very jaws of Death, and she would never forget it. He had saved her from a life-long sorrow.
And so, as slowly Guy returned, she schooled herself to subdue a certain distrust of him which was never wholly absent from her consciousness. She forced herself to treat him as a friend. She silenced the warning voice within her that had bade her so constantly beware. Perhaps her own physical endurance had begun to waver a little after the long strain. Undoubtedly his influence over her was such as it could scarcely have become under any other circumstances. Her long obedience to his will in the matter of Guy had brought her to a state of submission at which once she would have scoffed. And when at last, the worst of the battle over, she was overtaken by an overpowering weariness of mind and body, all things combined to place her at a hopeless disadvantage.
One day, after three weeks of strenuous nursing, she quitted Guy's room very suddenly to battle with a ghastly feeling of faintness which threatened to overwhelm her. Kieff, who had been present with Guy, followed her almost immediately to her own room, and found her with a deathly face groping against the wall as one stricken blind.
He took her firmly by the shoulders and forced her down over the back of a chair, holding her so with somewhat callous strength of purpose, till with a half-hysterical gasp she begged him to set her free. The colour had returned to her face when she stood up, but those few moments of weakness had bereft her of her self-control. She could not restrain her tears.
Kieff showed no emotion of any sort. With professional calm, he put her down upon the bed, and stood over her, feeling her pulse.
"You want sleep," he said.
She turned her face away from him, ashamed of the weakness she could not hide. "Yes, I know. But I can't sleep. I'm always listening. I can't help it. My brain feels wound up. Sometimes—sometimes it feels as if it hurts me to shut my eyes."
"There's a remedy for that," said Kieff, and his hand went to his pocket.
She looked at him startled. "Oh, not that! Not that! I couldn't. It would be wrong."
"Not if I advise it," said Kieff, with a self-assurance that seemed to knock aside her resistance as of no account.
She knew she ought to have resisted further, but somehow she could not. His very impassivity served to make opposition impossible. It came to her that the inevitable was upon her, and whatever she said would make no difference. Moreover, she was too tired greatly to care.
She uttered a little cry when a few seconds later she felt the needle pierce her flesh, but she submitted without a struggle. After all, what did it matter for once? And she needed rest so much.
With a sigh she surrendered herself, and was amazed at the swift relief that came to her. It was like the rolling away of an immense weight, and immediately she seemed to float upwards, upwards, like a soaring bird.
Kieff remained by her side, but his presence did not trouble her. She was possessed by an ecstasy so marvellous that she had no room for any other emotion; She was as one borne on wings, ascending, ever ascending, through an atmosphere of transcendent gold.
Once he touched her forehead, and bringing his hand slowly downwards compelled her to close her eyes. A brief darkness came upon her, and she uttered a muffled protest. But when he lifted his hand again, her eyes did not open. The physical had fallen from her, material things had ceased to matter. She was free—free as the ether through which she floated. She was mounting upwards, upwards, upwards, through celestial morning to her castle at the top of the world. And the magic—the magic that beat in her veins—was the very elixir of life within her, inspiring her, uplifting her. For a space she hovered thus, still mounting, but imperceptibly, caught as it were between earth and heaven. Then the golden glamour about her turned to a mystic haze. Strange visions, but half comprehended, took shape and dissolved before her. She believed that she was floating among the mountain-crests with the Infinite all about her. The wonder of it and the rapture were beyond all utterance, beyond the grasp of human knowledge; the joy exceeded all that she had ever known. And so by exquisite phases, she entered at last a great vastness—a slumber-space where all things were forgotten, lost in the radiance of an unbroken peace.
She folded the wings of her enchantment with absolute contentment and slept. She had come to a new era in her existence. She had reached the top of the world. . . .
It was long, long after that she awoke, returning to earth with the feeling of one revisiting old haunts after half a lifetime. She was very tired, and her head throbbed painfully, but at the back of her brain was an urgent sense of something needed, something that must be done. She raised herself with immense effort,—and met the eyes of Burke seated by her side.
He was watching her with a grave, unstirring attention that did not waver for an instant as she moved. It struck her that there was a strange remoteness about him, almost as if he belonged to another world. Or was it she—she who had for a space overstepped the boundary and wandered awhile through the Unknown?
He spoke, and in his voice was a depth that awed her.
"Do you know me?" he said.
She gazed at him, bewildered, wondering. "But of course I know you! Why do you ask? Are you—changed in any way?"
He made an odd movement, as if the question in her wide eyes pierced him. He did not answer her in words; only after a moment he took her hand and pushed up the sleeve as though looking for something.
She lay passive for a few seconds, watching him. Then suddenly, blindly, she realized what was the object of his search. She made a quick, instinctive movement to frustrate him.
His hand tightened instantly upon hers; he pointed to a tiny mark upon the inside of her arm. "How did you get that?" he said.
His eyes looked straight into hers. There was something pitiless, something almost brutal, in their regard. In spite of herself she flinched, and lowered her own.
"Answer me!" he said.
She felt the hot colour rush in a guilty flood over her face. "It was only—for once," she faltered. "I wanted sleep, and I couldn't get it."
"Kieff gave it you," he said, his tone grimly insistent.
She nodded. "Yes. He meant well. He saw I was fagged out."
Burke was silent for a space, still grasping her hand. Her head was throbbing dizzily, but she would not lower it to the pillow again in his presence. She felt almost like a prisoner awaiting sentence.
"Did he give it you against your will?" he asked at length.
"Not altogether." Her voice was almost a whisper. Her heart was beating with hard, uneven strokes. She felt sick and faint.
Burke moved suddenly, releasing her hand. He rose with that decision characteristic of him and walked across the room. She heard the splash of water in a basin, and then he came back to her. As if she had been a child, he raised her to lean against him, and proceeded very quietly to bathe her face and head with ice-cold water.
She shrank at the chill of it, but he persisted in his task, and very soon she began to feel refreshed.
"Thank you," she murmured at last. "I am better now. I will get up."
"You had better lie still for the present," he said. "I will send you in some supper later."
His tone was repressive. She could not look him in the face. But, as he made as if he would rise, something impelled her to lay a detaining hand upon his arm.
"Please wait a minute!" she said,
He waited, and in a moment, with difficulty, she went on.
"Burke, I have done wrong, I know. I am sorry. Please don't be angry with me! I—can't bear it."
There was a catch in her voice that she could not restrain. She had a great longing to hide her face on his shoulder and burst into tears. But something—some inner, urgent warning—held her back.
Burke sat quite still. There was a touch of rigidity in his attitude. "All right," he said at last. "I am not angry—with you."
Her fingers closed upon his arm. "Please don't quarrel with Dr. Kieff about it!" she said nervously. "It won't happen again."
She felt him stiffen still further at her words. "It certainly won't," he said briefly, "Tell me, have you got any of the infernal stuff by you?"
She glanced up at him, startled by the question. "Of course I haven't!" she said.
His eyes held a glitter that was almost bestial. She dropped her hand from, his arm as if she had received an electric shock. He got up instantly.
"Very well. I will leave you now. You had better go to bed."
"I must see Guy first," she objected.
"I am attending to Guy," he said.
That opened her eyes. She started up, facing him, a sudden sharp misgiving at her heart. "Burke! You! Where—is Dr. Kieff?"
He uttered a grim, exultant sound that made her quiver. "He is on his way back to Ritzen—or Brennerstadt. He didn't mention which."
"Ah!" Her hands were tightly clasped upon her breast. "What—what have you done to him?" she panted.
Burke had risen to his feet. "I have—helped him on his way, that's all," he said.
She tried to stand up also, but the moment she touched the ground, she reeled. He caught her, and held her, facing him. His eyes shone with a glow as of molten metal,
"Do you think," he said, breathing deeply, "that I would suffer that accursed fiend to drag my wife—my wife—down into that infernal slough?"
She was trembling from head to foot; her knees doubled under her, but he held her up. The barely repressed violence of his speech was perceptible in his hold also. She had no strength to meet it.
"But what of Guy?" she whispered voicelessly. "He will die!"
"Guy!" he said, and in the word there was a bitterness indescribable. "Is be to be weighed in the balance against you?"
She was powerless to reason with him, and perhaps it was as well for her that this was so, for he was in no mood to endure opposition. His wrath seemed to beat about her like a storm-blast. But yet he held her up, and after a moment, seeing her weakness, he softened somewhat.
"There! Lie down again!" he said, and lowered her to the bed. "I'll see to Guy. Only remember," he stooped over her, and to her strained senses he loomed gigantic, "if you ever touch that stuff again, my faith in you will be gone. And where there is no trust, you can't expect—honour."
The words seemed to pierce her, but he straightened himself the moment after and turned to go.
She covered her face with her hands as the door closed upon him. She felt as if she had entered upon a new era, indeed, and she feared with a dread unspeakable to look upon the path which lay before her.
When Sylvia saw Guy again, he greeted her with an odd expression in his dark eyes, half-humorous, half-speculative. He was lying propped on pillows by the open window, a cigarette and a box of matches by his side.
"Hullo, Sylvia!" he said. "You can come in. The big baas has set his house in order and gone out."
The early morning sunshine was streaming across his bed. She thought he looked wonderfully better, and marvelled at the change.
He smiled at her as she drew near. "Yes, I've been washed and fed and generally made respectable. Thank goodness that brute Kieff has gone anyway! I couldn't have endured him much longer. What was the grand offence? Did he make love to you or what?"
"Make love to me! Of course not!" Sylvia flushed indignantly at the suggestion.
Guy laughed; he seemed in excellent spirits. "He'd better not, what? But the big baas was very angry with him, I can tell you. And I can't think it was on my account. I'm inoffensive enough, heavens knows."
He reached up a hand as she stood beside him, and took and held hers.
"You're a dear girl, Sylvia," he said. "Just the very sight of you does me good. You're not sorry Kieff has gone?"
"Sorry! No!" She looked down at him with doubt in her eyes. "Only—we owe him a good deal, remember. He saved your life."
"Oh, that!" said Guy lightly. "You may set your mind quite at rest on that score, my dear. He wouldn't have done it if he hadn't felt like it. He pleases himself in all he does. But I should like to have witnessed his exit last night. That, I imagine, was more satisfactory from Burke's point of view than from his. He—Burke—came back with that smile-on-the-face-of-the-tiger expression of his. You've seen it, I daresay. It was very much in evidence last night."
Sylvia repressed a sudden shiver. "Oh, Guy! What do you think happened?"
He gave her hand a sudden squeeze. "Nothing to worry about, I do assure you. He's a devil of a fellow when he's roused, isn't he? But—so far as my knowledge goes—he's never killed anyone yet. Sit down, old girl, and let's have a smoke together! I'm allowed just one to-day—as a reward for good behaviour."
"Are you being good?" said Sylvia.
Guy closed one eye. "Oh, I'm a positive saint to-day. I've promised—almost—never to be naughty again. Do you know Burke slept on the floor in here last night? Decent of him, wasn't it?"
Sylvia glanced swiftly round. "Did he? How uncomfortable for him! He mustn't do that again,"
"He didn't notice," Guy assured her. "He was much too pleased with himself. I rather like him for that, you know. He has a wonderful faculty for—what shall we call it?—mental detachment? Or, is it physical? Anyway, he knows how to enjoy his emotions, whatever they are, and he doesn't let any little personal discomfort stand in his way."
He ended with a careless laugh from which all bitterness was absent, and after a little pause Sylvia sat down by his side. His whole attitude amazed her this morning. Some magic had been at work. The fretful misery of the past few weeks had passed like a cloud. This was her own Guy come back to her, clean, sane, with the boyish humour that she had always loved in him, and the old quick light of understanding and sympathy in his eyes.
He watched her with a smile. "Aren't you going to light up, too? Come, you'd better. It'll tone you up,"
She looked back at him. "Had you better smoke?" she said. "Won't it start your cough?"
He lifted an imperious hand. "It won't kill me if it does. Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Like what?" she said.
"As if I'd come back from the dead." He frowned at her abruptly though his eyes still smiled. "Don't!" he said.
She smiled in answer, and picked up the matchbox. It was of silver and bore his initials.
"Yes," Guy said, "I've taken great care of it, haven't I? It's been my mascot all these years."
She took out a match and struck it without speaking. There was something poignant in her silence. She was standing again in the wintry dark of her father's park, pressed close to Guy's heart, and begging him brokenly to use that little parting gift of hers with thoughts of her when more than half the world lay between them. Guy's cigarette was in his mouth. She stooped forward to light it. Her hand was trembling. In a moment he reached up, patted it lightly, and took the match from her fingers. The action said more than words. It was as if he had gently turned a page in the book of life, and bade her not to look back.
"Now don't you bother about me!" he said. "I'm being good—as you see. So go and cook the dinner or do anything else that appeals to your housekeeper's soul! That is, if you feel it's immoral to smoke a cigarette at this early hour. Needless to say, I shall be charmed if you will join me."
But he did not mean to talk upon intimate subjects, and his tone conveyed as much. She lingered for a while, and they spoke of the farm, the cattle, Burke's prospects, everything under the sun save personal matters. Yet there was no barrier in their reserve. They avoided these by tacit consent.
In the end she left him, feeling strangely comforted. Burke had been right. The devil had gone out of Guy, and he had come back.
She pondered the matter as she went about her various tasks, but she found no solution thereof. Something must have happened to cause the change in him; she could not believe that Kieff's departure had effected it. Her thoughts went involuntarily to Burke—Burke whose wrath had been so terrible the previous night. Was it due to him? Had he accomplished what neither Kieff's skill nor her devotion had been able to achieve? Yet he had spoken of Guy as one of his failures. He had impressed upon her the fact that Guy's, case was hopeless. She had even been convinced of it herself until to-day. But to-day all things were changed. Guy had come back.
The thought of her next meeting with Burke tormented her continually, checking all gladness. She dreaded it unspeakably, listening for him with nerves on edge during the busy hours that followed.
She made the Kaffir boy bring the camp-bed out of the guest-hut which Burke had occupied of late and set it up in a corner of Guy's room. Kieff had slept on a long-chair in the sitting-room, taking his rest at odd times and never for any prolonged spell. She had even wondered sometimes if he ever really slept at all, so alert had he been at the slightest sound. But she knew that Burke hated the long-chair because it creaked at every movement, and she was determined that he should not spend another night on the floor. So, while with trepidation she awaited him, she made such preparations as she could for his comfort.
Joe, the house-boy, was very clumsy in all his ways, and Guy, looking on, seemed to derive considerable amusement from his performance. "I always did like Joe," he remarked. "There's something about his mechanism that is irresistibly comic. Oh, do leave him alone, Sylvia! Let him arrange the thing upside down if he wants to!"
Joe's futility certainly had something of the comic order about it. He had a dramatic fashion of rolling his eyes when expectant of rebuke, which was by no means seldom. And the vastness of his smile was almost bewildering. Sylvia had never been able quite to accustom herself to his smile.
"He's exactly like a golliwog, isn't he?" said Guy. "His head will split in two if you encourage him."
But Sylvia, hot and anxious, found it impossible to view Joe's exhibition with enjoyment. He was more stupid in the execution of her behests than she had ever found him before, and at length, losing patience, she dismissed him and proceeded to erect the bed herself.
She was in the midst of this when there came the sound of a step in the room, and Guy's quick,
"Hullo!" told her of the entrance of a third person. She stood up sharply, and met Burke face to face.
She was panting a little from her exertions, and her hand went to her side. For the moment a horrible feeling of discomfiture overwhelmed her. His look was so direct; it seemed to go straight through her.
"What is this for?" he said.
She mastered her embarrassment with a swift effort. "Guy said you slept on the floor last night. I am sure it wasn't very comfortable, so I have brought this in instead. You don't mind?" with a glance at him that held something of appeal.
"I mind you putting it up yourself," he said briefly. "Sit down! Where's that lazy hound, Joe?"
"Oh, don't call Joe!" Guy begged. "He has already reduced her to exasperation. She won't listen to me either when I tell her that I can look after myself at night. You tell her, Burke! She'll listen to you perhaps."
But Burke ended the matter without further discussion by putting her on one side and finishing the job himself. Then he stood up.
"Let Mary Ann do the rest! You have been working too hard. Come, and have some lunch! You'll be all right, Guy?"
"Oh, quite," Guy assured him. "Mary Ann can take care of me. She'll enjoy it."
Sylvia looked back at him over her shoulder as she went out, but she did not linger. There was something imperious about Burke just then.
They entered the sitting-room together. "Look here!" he said. "You're not to tire yourself out. Guy is convalescent now. Let him look after himself for a bit!"
"I haven't been doing anything for Guy," she objected. "Only I can't have you sleeping on the floor."
"What's it matter," he said gruffly, "where or how I sleep?" And then suddenly he took her by the shoulders and held her before him. "Just look at me a moment!" he said.
It was a definite command. She lifted her eyes, but the instant they met his that overwhelming confusion came upon her again. His gaze was so intent, so searching. All her defences seemed to go down before it.
Her lip suddenly quivered, and she turned her face aside. "Be—kind to me, Burke!" she said, under her breath.
He let her go; but he stood motionless for some seconds after as if debating some point with himself. She went to the window and nervously straightened the curtain. After a considerable pause his voice came to her there.
"I want you to rest this afternoon, and ride over with me to the Merstons after tea. Will you do that?"
She turned sharply. "And leave Guy? Oh, no!"
Across the room she met his look, and she saw that he meant to have his way. "I wish it," he said.
She came slowly back to him. "Burke,—please! I can't do that. It wouldn't be right. We can't leave Guy to the Kaffirs."
"Guy can look after himself," he reiterated. "You have done enough—too much—in that line already. He doesn't need you with him all daylong."
She shook her head. "I think he needs—someone. It wouldn't be right—I know it wouldn't be right to leave him quite alone. Besides, the Merstons won't want me. Why should I go?"
"Because I wish it," he said again. And, after a moment, as she stood silent, "Doesn't that count with you?"
She looked up at him quickly, caught by something in his tone, "Of course your wishes count with me!" she said. "You know they do. But all the same—" She paused, searching for words.
"Guy comes first," he suggested, in the casual voice of one stating an acknowledged fact.
She felt the hot colour rise to her temples. "Oh, it isn't fair of you to say that!" she said.
"Isn't it true?" said Burke.
She collected herself to answer him. "It is only because his need has been so great. If we had not put him first—before everything else—we should never have saved him."
"And now that he is saved," Burke said, a faint ring of irony in his voice, "isn't it almost time to begin to consider—other needs? Do you know you are looking very ill?"
He asked the question abruptly, so abruptly that she started. Her nerves were on edge that day.
"Am I? No, I didn't know. It isn't serious anyway. Please don't bother about that!"
He smiled faintly. "I've got to bother. If you don't improve very quickly, I shall take you to Brennerstadt to see a decent doctor there."
"Oh, don't be absurd!" she said, with quick annoyance. "I'm not going to do anything so silly."
He put his hand on her arm. "Sylvia, I've got something to say to you," he said.
She made a slight movement as if his touch were unwelcome. "Well? What is it?" she said.
"Only this." He spoke very steadily, but while he spoke his hand closed upon her. You've gone your own way so far, and it hasn't been specially good for you. That's why I'm going to pull you up now, and make you go mine."
"Make me!" Her eyes flashed sudden fire upon him. She was overwrought and weary, and he had taken her by surprise, or she would have dealt with the situation—and with him—far otherwise. "Make me!" she repeated, and in second, almost before she knew it, she was up in arms, facing him with open rebellion. "I'll defy you to do that!" she said.
The moment she had said it, the word still scarcely uttered, she repented. She had not meant to defy him. The whole thing had come about so swiftly, so unexpectedly, hardly, she felt, of her own volition. And now, more than half against her will, she stood committed to carry through an undertaking for which even at the outset, she had no heart. For there was no turning back. The challenge, once uttered, could not be withdrawn. She was no coward. The idea came to her that if she blenched then she would for all time forfeit his respect as well as her own.
So she stood her ground, slim and upright, braced to defiance, though at the back of all her bravery there lurked a sickening fear.
Burke did not speak at once. His look scarcely altered, his hold upon her remained perfectly steady and temperate. Yet in the pause the beating of her heart rose between them—a hard, insistent throbbing like the fleeing feet of a hunted thing.
"You really mean that?" he asked at length.
"Yes." Straight and unhesitating came her answer. It was now or never, she told herself. But she was trembling, despite her utmost effort.
He bent a little, looking into her eyes. "You really wish me to show you who is master?" he said.
She met his look, but her heart was beating wildly, spasmodically. There was that about him, a ruthlessness, a deadly intention, that appalled her. The ground seemed to be rocking under her feet, and a dreadful consciousness of sheer, physical weakness rushed upon her. She went back against the table, seeking for support.
But through it all, desperately she made her gallant struggle for freedom. "You will never master me against my will," she said. "I—I—I'll die first!"
And then, as the last shred of her strength went from her she covered her face with her hands, shutting him out.
"Ah!" he said. "But who goes into battle without first counting the cost?"
He spoke sombrely, without anger; yet in the very utterance of the words there was that which made her realize that she was beaten. Whether he chose to avail himself of the advantage or not, the victory was his.
At the end of a long silence, she lifted her head. "I give you best, partner," she said, and held out her hand to him with a difficult smile. "I'd no right—to kick over the traces—like that. I'm going to be good now—really."
It was a frank acceptance of defeat; so frank as to be utterly disarming. He took the proffered hand and held it closely, without speaking.
She was still trembling a little, but she had regained her self-command. "I'm sorry I was such a little beast," she said. "But you've got me beat. I'll try and make good somehow."
He found his voice at that. It came with an odd harshness. "Don't!" he said. "Don't!—You're not—beat. The battle isn't always to the strong."
She laughed faintly with more assurance, though still somewhat shakily. "Not when the strong are too generous to take advantage, perhaps. Thank you for that, partner. Now—do you mind if I take Guy his nourishment?"
She put the matter behind her with that inimitable lightness of hers which of late she had seemed to have lost. She went from him to wait upon Guy with the tremulous laugh upon her lips, and when she returned she had fully recovered her self-control, and talked with him upon many matters connected with the farm which he had not heard her mention during all the period of her nursing. She displayed all her old zest. She spoke as one keenly interested. But behind it all was a feverish unrest, a nameless, intangible quality that had never characterized her in former days. She was elusive. Her old delicate confidence in him was absent. She walked warily where once she had trodden without the faintest hesitation.
When the meal was over, she checked him as he was on the point of going to Guy. "How soon ought we to start for the Merstons?" she asked.
He paused a moment. Then, "I will let you off to-day," he said. "We will ride out to the kopje instead."
He thought she would hail this concession with relief, but she shook her head instantly, her face deeply flushed.
"No, I think not! We will go to the Merstons—if Guy is well enough. We really ought to go."
She baffled him completely. He turned away. "As you will," he said. "We ought to start in two hours."
"I shall be ready," said Sylvia.
"Well!" said Mrs. Merston, with her thin smile. "Are you still enjoying the Garden of Eden, Mrs. Ranger?"
Sylvia, white and tired after her ride, tried to smile in answer and failed. "I shall be glad when the winter is over," she said.
Mrs. Merston's colourless eyes narrowed a little, taking her in. "You don't look so blooming as you did," she remarked. "I hear you have had Guy Ranger on your hands."
"Yes," Sylvia said, and coloured a little in spite of herself.
"What has been the matter with him?" demanded Mrs. Merston.
Sylvia hesitated, and in a moment the older woman broke into a grating laugh.
"Oh, you needn't trouble to dress it up in polite language. I know the malady he suffers from. But I wonder Burke would allow you to have anything to do with it. He has a reputation for being rather particular."
"He is particular," Sylvia said.
Somehow she could not bring herself to tell Mrs. Merston the actual cause of Guy's illness. She did not want to talk of it. But Mrs. Merston was difficult to silence.
"Is it true that that scoundrel Kieff has been staying at Blue Hill Farm?" she asked next, still closely observant of her visitor's face.
Sylvia looked at her with a touch of animation. "I wonder why everyone calls him that," she said. "Yes, he has been with us. He is a doctor, a very clever one. I never liked him very much, but I often wondered what he had done to be called that."
"Oh, I only know what they say," said Mrs. Merston. "I imagine he was in a large measure responsible for young Ranger's fall from virtue in the first place—and that of a good many besides. He's something of a vampire, so they say. There are plenty of them about in this charming country."
"How horrible!" murmured Sylvia, with a slight shudder as a vision of the motionless, onyx eyes which had so often watched her rose in her mind.
"You're looking quite worn out," remarked Mrs. Merston. "Why did you let your husband drag you over here? You had better stay the night and have a rest."
But Sylvia hastened to decline this invitation with much decision. "I couldn't possibly do that, thank you. There is so much to be seen to at home. It is very kind of you, but please don't suggest it to Burke!"
Mrs. Merston gave her an odd look. "Do you always do as your husband tells you!" she said. "What a mistake!"
Sylvia blushed very deeply. "I think—one ought," she said in a low voice.
"How old-fashioned of you!" said Mrs. Merston. "I don't indulge mine to that extent. Are you going to Brennerstadt for the races next month? Or has the oracle decreed that you are to stay behind?"
"I don't know. I didn't know there were any." Sylvia looked out through the mauve-coloured twilight to where Burke stood talking with Merston by one of the hideous corrugated iron cattle-sheds. The Merstons' farm certainly did not compare favourably with Burke's. She could not actively condemn Mrs. Merston's obvious distaste for all that life held for her. So far as she could see, there was not a tree on the place, only the horrible prickly pear bushes thrusting out their distorted arms as if exulting in their own nakedness.
They had had their tea in front of the bungalow, if it could be dignified by such a name. It was certainly scarcely more than an iron shed, and the heat within during the day was, she could well imagine, almost unbearable. It was time to be starting back, and she wished Burke would come. Her hostess's scoffing reference to him made her long to get away. Politeness, however, forbade her summarily to drop the subject just started.
"Do you go to Brennerstadt for the races?" she asked.
"I?" said Mrs. Merston, and laughed again her caustic, mirthless laugh. "No! My acquaintance with Brennerstadt is of a less amusing nature. When I go there, I merely go to be ill, and as soon as I am partially recovered, I come back—to this." There was inexpressible bitterness in her voice. "Some day," she said, '"I shall go there to die. That is all I have to look forward to now."
"Oh, don't!" Sylvia said, with quick feeling. "Don't, please! You shouldn't feel like that."
Mrs. Merston's face was twisted in a painful smile. She looked into the girl's face with a kind of cynical pity. "You will come to it," she said. "Life isn't what it was to you even now. You're beginning to feel the thorns under the rose-leaves. Of course you may be lucky. You may bear children, and that will be your salvation. But if you don't—if you don't——"
"Please!" whispered Sylvia. "Please don't say that to me!"
The words were almost inarticulate. She got up as she uttered them and moved away. Mrs. Merston looked after her, and very strangely her face altered. Something of that mother-love in her which had so long been cheated showed in her lustreless eyes.
"Oh, poor child!" she said. "I am sorry."
It was briefly spoken. She was ever brief in her rare moments of emotion. But there was a throb of feeling in the words that reached Sylvia. She turned impulsively back again.
"Thank you," she said, and there were tears in her eyes as she spoke. "I think perhaps—" her utterance came with an effort "—my life is—in its way—almost as difficult as yours. That ought to make us comrades, oughtn't it? If ever there is anything I can do to help you, please tell me!"
"Let it be a mutual understanding!" said Mrs. Merston, and to Sylvia's surprise she took and pressed her hand for a moment.
There was more comfort in that simple pressure than Sylvia could have believed possible. She returned it with that quick warmth of hers which never failed to respond to kindness, and in that second the seed of friendship was sown upon fruitful ground.
The moment passed, sped by Mrs. Merston who seemed half-afraid of her own action.
"You must get your husband to take you to Brennerstadt for the races," she said. "It would make a change for you. It's a shame for a girl of your age to be buried in the wilderness."
"I really haven't begun to be dull yet," Sylvia said.
"No, perhaps not. But you'll get nervy and unhappy. You've been used to society, and it isn't good for you to go without it entirely. Look at me!" said Mrs. Merston, with her short laugh. "And take warning!"
The two men were sauntering towards them, and they moved to meet them. Far down in the east an almost unbelievably huge moon hung like a brazen shield. The mauve of the sunset had faded to pearl.
"It is rather a beautiful world, isn't it?" Sylvia said a little wistfully.
"To the favoured few—yes," said Mrs. Merston.
Sylvia gave her a quick glance. "I read somewhere—I don't know if it's true—that we are all given the ingredients of happiness, but the mixing is left to ourselves. Perhaps you and I haven't found the right mixture yet."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Merston. "Perhaps not."
"I'm going to have another try," said Sylvia, with sudden energy.
"I wish you luck," said Mrs. Merston somewhat grimly.
From the day of her visit to the Merstons Sylvia took up her old life again, and pursued all her old vocations with a vigour that seemed even more enthusiastic than of yore. Her ministrations to Guy had ceased to be of an arduous character, or indeed to occupy much of her time. It was mainly Burke who filled Kieff's place and looked after Guy generally with a quiet efficiency that never encouraged any indulgence. They seemed to be good friends, yet Sylvia often wondered with a dull ache at the heart if this were any more than seeming. There was so slight a show of intimacy between them, so little of that camaraderie generally so noticeable between dwellers in the wilderness. Sometimes she fancied she caught a mocking light in Guy's eyes when they looked at Burke. He was always perfectly docile under his management, but was he always genuine? She could not tell. His recovery amazed her. He seemed to possess an almost boundless store of vitality. He cast his weakness from him with careless jesting, laughing down all her fears. She knew well that he was not so strong as he would have had her believe, that he fought down his demon of suffering in solitude, that often he paid heavily for deeds of recklessness. But the fact remained that he had come back from the gates of death, and each day she marvelled anew.
She and Burke seldom spoke of him when together. That intangible reserve that had grown up between them seemed to make it impossible. She had no longer the faintest idea as to Burke's opinion of the returned prodigal, whether he still entertained his previous conviction that Guy was beyond help, or whether he had begun at length to have any confidence for the future. In a vague fashion his reticence hurt her, but she could not bring herself to attempt to break through it. He was a man perpetually watching for something, and it made her uneasy and doubtful, though for what he watched she had no notion. For it was upon herself rather than upon Guy that his attention seemed to be concentrated. His attitude puzzled her. She felt curiously like a prisoner, though to neither word, nor look, nor deed could she ascribe the feeling. She was even at times disposed to put it down to the effect of the weather upon her physically. It did undoubtedly try her very severely. Though the exercise that she compelled herself to take had restored to her the power to sleep, she always felt as weary when she arose as when she lay down. The heat and the drought combined to wear her out. Valiantly though she struggled to rally her flagging energies, the effort became increasingly difficult. She lived in the depths of a great depression, against which, strive as she might, she ever strove in vain. She was furious with herself for her failure, but it pursued her relentlessly. She found the Kaffir servants more than usually idle and difficult to deal with, and this added yet further to the burden that weighed her down.
One day, returning from a ride to find Fair Rosamond swabbing the floor of the stoep with her bath-sponge, she lost her temper completely and wholly unexpectedly, and cut the girl across her naked shoulders with her riding-switch. It was done in a moment—a single, desperate moment of unbearable exasperation. Rosamond screamed and fled, upsetting her pail inadvertently over her mistress's feet as she went. And Sylvia, with a burning sense of shame for her violence, retreated as precipitately to her own room.
She entered by the window, and, not even noticing that the door into the sitting-room stood ajar, flung herself down by the table in a convulsion of tears. She hated herself for her action, she hated Rosamond for having been the cause of it. She hated the blazing sky and the parched earth, the barren veldt, the imprisoning kopjes, the hopeless sense of oppression, of being always somehow in the wrong. A wild longing to escape was upon her, to go anywhere—anywhere, so long as she could get right away from that intolerable weight of misgiving, doubt, dissatisfaction, foreboding, that hung like a galling chain upon her.
She was getting like Mrs. Merston, she told herself passionately. Already her youth had gone, and all that made life worth living was going with it. She had made her desperate bid for happiness, and she had lost. And Burke—Burke was only watching for her hour of weakness to make himself even more completely her master than he was already. Had he not only that morning—only that morning—gruffly ordered her back from a distant cattle-run that she had desired to inspect? Was he not always asserting his authority in some fashion over her, crumbling away her resistance piece by piece till at last he could stride in all-conquering and take possession? He was always so strong, so horribly strong, so sure of himself. And though it had pleased him to be generous in his dealings with her, she had seen far less of that generosity since Guy's recovery. They were partners no longer, she told herself bitterly. That farce was ended. Perhaps it was her own fault. Everything seemed to be her fault nowadays. She had not played her cards well during Guy's illness. Somehow she had not felt a free agent. It was Kieff who had played the cards, had involved her in such difficulties as she had never before encountered, and then had left her perforce to extricate herself alone; to extricate herself—or to pay the price. She seemed to have been struggling against overwhelming odds ever since. She had fought with all her strength to win back to the old freedom, but she had failed. And in that dark hour she told herself that freedom was not for her. She was destined to be a slave for the rest of her life.
The wild paroxysm of crying could not last. Already she was beginning to be ashamed of her weakness. And ere long she would have to face Burke. The thought of that steady, probing look made her shrink in every fibre. Was there anything that those shrewd eyes did not see?
What was that? She started at a sound. Surely he had not returned so soon!
For a second there was something very like panic at her heart. Then, bracing herself, she lifted her head, and saw Guy.
He had entered by the sitting-room door and in his slippers she had not heard him till he was close to her. He was already bending over her when she realized his presence.
She put up a quick hand. "Oh, Guy!" she said with a gasp.
He caught and held it in swift response. "My own girl!" he said. "I heard you crying. I was in my room dressing. What's it all about?"
She could not tell him, the anguish was still too near. She bowed her head and sat in throbbing silence.
"Look here!" said Guy. "Don't!" He stooped lower over her, his dark face twitching. "Don't!" he said again. "Life isn't worth it. Life's too short. Be happy, dear! Be happy!"
He spoke a few words softly against her hair. There was entreaty in their utterance. It was as if he pleaded for his own self.
She made a little movement as if something had pierced her, and in a moment she found her voice.
"Life is so—difficult," she said, with a sob.
"You take it too hard," he answered rapidly. "You think too much of—little things. It isn't the way to be happy. What you ought to do is to grab the big things while you can, and chuck the little ones into the gutter. Life's nothing but a farce. It isn't meant to be taken—really seriously. It isn't long enough for sacrifice. I tell you, it isn't long enough!"
There was something passionate in the reiterated declaration. The clasp of his hand was feverish. That strange vitality of his that had made him defy the death he had courted seemed to vibrate within him like a stretched wire. His attitude was tense with it. And a curious thrill went through her, as though there were electricity in his touch.
She could not argue the matter with him though every instinct told her he was wrong. She was too overwrought to see things with an impartial eye. She felt too tired greatly to care.
"I feel," she told him drearily, "as if I want to get away from everything and everybody."
"Oh no, you don't!" he said. "All you want is to get away from Burke. That's your trouble—and always will be under present conditions. Do you think I haven't looked on long enough? Why don't you go away?"
"Go away!" She looked up at him again, startled.
Guy's sunken eyes were shining with a fierce intensity. They urged her more poignantly than words. "Don't you see what's going to happen—if you don't?" he said.
That moved her. She sprang up with a sound that was almost a cry, and stood facing him, her hand hard pressed against her heart.
"Of course I know he's a wonderful chap and all that," Guy went on. "But you haven't cheated yourself yet into believing that you care for him, have you? He isn't the sort to attract any woman at first sight, and I'll wager he has never made love to you. He's far too busy with his cattle and his crops. What on earth did you marry him for? Can't you see that he makes a slave of everyone who comes near him?"
But she lifted her head proudly at that. "He has never made a slave of me," she said.
"He will," Guy rejoined relentlessly. "He'll have you under his heel before many weeks. You know it in your heart. Why did you marry him, Sylvia? Tell me why you married him!"
The insistence of the question compelled an answer. Yet she paused, for it was a question she had never asked herself. Why had she married Burke indeed? Had it been out of sheer expediency? Or had there been some deeper and more subtle reason? She knew full well that there was probably not another man in Africa to whom she would have thus entrusted herself, however urgent the circumstances. How was it then that she had accepted Burke?
And then, looking into Guy's tense face, the answer came to her, and she had uttered it almost before she knew. "I married him because he was so like you."
The moment she had uttered the words she would have recalled them, for Guy made an abrupt movement and turned so white that she thought he would faint. His eyes went beyond her with a strained, glassy look, and for seconds he stood so, as one gone suddenly blind.
Then with a jerk he pulled himself together, and gave her an odd smile that somehow cut her to the heart.
"That was a straight hit anyway," he said. "And are you going to stick to him for the same reason?"
She turned her face away with the feeling of one who dreads to look upon some grievous hurt. "No," she said, in a low voice. "Only because—I am his wife."
Guy made a short, contemptuous sound. "And for that you're going to let him ride rough-shod over you—give him the right to control your every movement? Oh, forgive me, but you good people hold such ghastly ideas of right and wrong. And what on earth do you gain by it all? You sacrifice everything to the future, and the future is all mirage—all mirage. You'll never get there, never as long as you live."
Again that quick note of passion was in his voice, and she tingled at the sound, for though she knew so well that he was wrong something that was quick and passionate within her made instinctive response. She understood him. Had she not always understood him?
She did not answer him. She had given him her answer. And he, realizing this turned aside to open the window. Yet, for a moment he stood looking back at her, and all her life she was to remember the love and the longing of his eyes. It was as if for that second a veil had been rent aside, and he had shown her his naked soul.
She wondered afterwards if he had really meant her to see. For immediately, as he went out, he broke into a careless whistle, and then, an instant later, she heard him fling a greeting to someone out in the blinding sunshine.
An answer came back from much nearer than she had anticipated. It was in the guttural tones of Hans Schafen the overseer, and with a jerk she remembered that the man always sat on the corner of the stoep to await Burke if he arrived before their return from the lands. It was his custom to wear rubber soles to his boots, and no one ever heard him come or go. For some reason this fact had always prejudiced her against Hans Schafen.
When Burke came in to lunch half an hour later, he found Sylvia alone in the sitting-room, laying the cloth.
She glanced up somewhat nervously at his entrance. "I've frightened Rosamond away," she said.
"Little cuss! Good thing too!" he said. She proceeded rapidly with her occupation.
"I believe there's a sand-storm coming," she said, after a moment.
"Yes, confound it!"' said Burke.
He went to the window and stood gazing out with drawn brows.
With an effort she broke the silence. "What has Schafen to report? Is all well?"
He wheeled round abruptly and stood looking at her. For a few seconds he said nothing whatever, then as with a startled sense of uncertainty she turned towards him he spoke. "Schafen? Yes, he reported—several things. The dam over by Ritter Spruit is dried up for one thing. The animals will all have to driven down here. Then there have been several bad veldt-fires over to the north. It isn't only sand that's coming along. It's cinders too. We've got to take steps to protect the fodder, or we're done. It's just the way of this country. A single night may bring ruin."
He spoke with such unwonted bitterness that Sylvia was aroused out of her own depression. She had never known him take so pessimistic a view before. With an impulsiveness that was warm and very womanly, she left her task and went to him.
"Oh, Burke!" she said. "But the worst doesn't happen, does it? Anyway not often!"
He made an odd sound that was like a laugh choked at birth. "Not often," he agreed. And then abruptly, straightening himself, "Suppose it did,—what then?"
"What then?" She looked at him for a moment, still feeling curiously unsure of her ground. "Well, we'd weather it somehow, partner," she said, and held out her hand to him with a little quivering smile.
He made no movement to take her hand. Perhaps he had already heard what a few seconds later reached her own ears,—the sound of Guy's feet upon the stoep outside the window. But during those seconds his eyes dwelt upon her, holding her own with a fixed intentness that somehow made her feel cold. It was an unspeakable relief to her when he turned them from her, as it were setting her free.
Guy came in with something of his old free swing, and closed the window behind him. "Better to stew than to eat sand," he remarked. "I've just heard from one of the Kaffirs that Piet Vreiboom's land is on fire."
"What?" said Burke sharply.
"It's all right at present," said Guy. "We can bear it with equanimity. The wind is the other way."
"The wind may change," said Burke.
"That wouldn't be like your luck," remarked Guy, as he seated himself.
They partook of the meal almost in silence. To Sylvia the very air was laden with foreboding. Everything they ate was finely powered with sand, but she alone was apparently aware of the fact. The heat inside the bungalow was intense. Outside a fierce wind had begun to blow, and the sky was dark.
At the end of a very few minutes Burke arose. Guy sprang instantly to his feet.
"Are you off? I'm coming!"
"No—no," Burke said shortly. "Stay where you are!"
"I tell you I'm coming," said Guy, pushing aside his chair.
Burke, already ac the door, paused and looked at him. "Better not," he said. "You're not up to it—and this infernal sand——"
"Damn the sand!" said Guy, with vehemence. "I'm coming!"
He reached Burke with the words. His hand sought the door. Burke swallowed the rest of his remonstrance.
"Please yourself!" he said, with a shadowy smile; and then for a moment his eyes went to Sylvia. "You will stay in this afternoon," he said.
It was a definite command, and she had no thought of defying it. But the tone in which it was uttered hurt her.
"I suppose I shall do as I am told," she said, in a low voice.
He let Guy go and returned to her. He bent swiftly down over her and dropped a small key into her lap. "I leave you in charge of all that I possess," he said. "Good-bye!"
She looked up at him quickly. "Burke!" she stammered. Burke! There is no—danger?"
"Probably not of the sort you mean," he answered. And then suddenly his arms were round her. He held her close and hard. For a second she felt the strong beat of his heart, and then forgot it in an overwhelming rush of emotion that so possessed her as almost to deprive her of her senses. For he kissed her—he kissed her—and his kiss was as the branding of a hot iron. It seemed to burn her to the soul.
The next moment she was free; the door closed behind him, and she was alone. She sank down over the table, quivering all over. Her pulses were racing, her nerves in a wild tumult. She believed that the memory of that scorching kiss would tingle upon her lips for ever. It was as if an electric current had suddenly entered her inner-most being and now ran riot in every vein. And so wild was the tumult within her that she knew not whether dread or dismay or a frantic, surging, leaping thing that seemed to cry aloud for liberty were first in that mad race. She clasped her hands very tightly over her face, struggling to master those inner forces that fought within her. Never in her life had so fierce a conflict torn her. Soul and body, she seemed to be striving with an adversary who pierced her at every turn. He had kissed her thus; and in that unutterable moment he had opened her eyes, confronting her with an amazing truth from which she could not turn aside. Passion and a fierce and terrible jealousy had mingled in his kiss, anger also, and a menacing resentment that seemed to encompass her like a fiery ring, hedging her round.
But not love! There had been no love in his kiss. It had been an outrage of love, and it had wounded her to the heart. It had made her want to hide—to hide—till the first poignancy of the pain should be past. And yet—and yet—in all her anguish she knew that the way which Guy had so recklessly suggested was no way of escape for her. To flee from him was to court disaster—such disaster as would for ever wreck her chance of happiness. It could but confirm the evil doubt he harboured and might lead to such a catastrophe as she would not even contemplate.
But yet some way of escape there must be, and desperately she sought it, striving in defence of that nameless thing that had sprung to such wild life within her under the burning pressure of his lips, that strange and untamed force that she could neither bind nor subdue, but which to suffer him to behold meant sacrilege to her shrinking soul—such sacrilege as she believed she could never face and live.
Gradually the turmoil subsided, but it left her weak, inert, impotent. The impulse to pray came to her, but the prayer that went up from her trembling heart was voiceless and wordless. She had no means of expression in which to cloak her utter need. Only the stark helplessness of her whole being cried dumbly for deliverance.
A long time passed. The bungalow was silent and empty. She was quite alone. She could hear the rising rush of the wind across the veldt, and it sounded to her like a thing hunted and fleeing. The sand of the desert whipped against the windows, and the gloom increased. She was not naturally nervous, but a sense of fear oppressed her. She had that fateful feeling, which sometimes comes even in the sunshine, of something about to happen, of turning a sharp corner in the road of life that must change the whole outlook and trend of existence. She was afraid to look forward. For the first time life had become terrible to her.
She roused herself to action at last and got up from the table. Something fell on the ground as she did so. It was the key that Burke had given into her care. She knew it for the key of his strong-box in which he kept his money and papers. His journeys to Brennerstadt were never frequent, and she knew that he usually kept a considerable sum by him. The box was kept on the floor of the cupboard in the wall of the room which Guy now occupied. It was very heavy, so heavy that Burke himself never lifted it, seldom moved it from its place, but opened and closed it as it stood. She wondered as she groped for the key why he had given it to her. That action of his pointed to but one conclusion. He expected to be going into danger. He would not have parted with it otherwise. Of that she was certain. He and Guy were both going into danger then, and she was left in utter solitude to endure her suspense as best she could.
She searched in vain for the key. It was small and made to fit a patent lock. The darkness of the room baffled her search, and at last she abandoned it and went to the pantry for a lamp. The Kaffirs had gone to their huts. She found the lamp empty and untrimmed in a corner, with two others in the same condition. The oil was kept in an outbuilding some distance from the bungalow, and there was none in hand. She diverted her search to candles, but these also were hard to find. She spent several minutes there in the darkness with the wind howling weirdly around like a lost thing seeking shelter, and the sand beating against the little window with a persistent rattle that worried her nerves with a strange bewilderment.
Eventually she found an empty candlestick, and after prolonged search an end of candle. Sand was everywhere. It ground under her feet, and made gritty everything she touched. Was it fancy that brought to her the smell of burning, recalling Burke's words? She found herself shivering violently as she went to her own room for matches.
It was while she was here that there came to her above the roar of the wind a sudden sound that made her start and listen. Someone was knocking violently, almost battering, at the door that led into the passage.
Her heart gave a wild leap within her. Somehow—she knew not wherefore—her thoughts went to Kieff. She had a curiously strong feeling that he was, if not actually at the door, not far away. Then, even while she stood with caught breath listening, the door burst open and a blast of wind and sand came hurling into the house. It banged shut again instantly, and there followed a tramping of feet as if a herd of cattle had entered. Then there came a voice.
"Damnation!" it said, with vigour. "Damnation! It's a hell of a country, and myself was the benighted fool ever to come near it at all. Whist to it now! Anyone would think the devil himself was trying for admittance."
Very strangely that voice reassured Sylvia though she had never heard it before in her life. It did more; it sent such a rush of relief through her that she nearly laughed aloud.
She groped her way out into the passage, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her. "Come in, whoever you are!" she said. "It is rather infernal certainly. I'll light a candle in a moment—as soon as I can find some matches."
She saw a dim, broad figure standing in front of her and heard a long, soft whistle of dismay.
"I beg your pardon, madam," said the voice that had spoken such hearty invective a few seconds before. "Sure, I had no idea I was overheard. And I hope that I'll not have prejudiced you at all with the violence of me language. But it's in the air of the country, so to speak. And we all come to it in time. If it's a match that you're wanting, I've got one in my pocket this minute which I'll hand over with all the good will in the world if you'll do me the favour to wait."
Sylvia waited. She knew the sort of face that went with that voice, and it did not surprise her when the red Irish visage and sandy brows beamed upon her above the flickering candle. The laugh she had repressed a moment before rose to her lips. There was something so comic in this man's appearance just when she had been strung up for tragedy.
He looked at her with the eyes of a child, smiling good-humouredly at her mirth. "Sure, you're putting the joke on me," he said. "They all do it. Where can I have strayed to? Is this a fairy palace suddenly sprung up in the desert, and you the Queen of No Man's Land come down from your mountain-top to give me shelter?"
She shook her head, still laughing, "No, I've never been to the mountain-top. I'm only a farmer's wife."
"A farmer's wife!" He regarded her with quizzical curiosity for a space. "Is it Burke's bride that you are?" he questioned. "And is it Burke Ranger's farm that I've blundered into after all?"
"I am Burke Ranger's wife," she told him. "But I left off being a bride a long time ago. We are all too busy out here to keep up sentimental nonsense of that sort."
"And isn't it the cynic that ye are entirely?" rejoined the visitor, broadly grinning. "Sure, it's time I introduced myself to the lady of the house. I'm Donovan Kelly, late of His Majesty's Imperial Yeomanry, and at present engaged in the peaceful avocation of mining for diamonds under the rubbish-heaps of Brennerstadt."
Sylvia held out her hand. There could be no standing upon ceremony with this man. She hailed him instinctively as a friend. There are some men in the world whom no woman can regard in any other light.
"I am very pleased to meet you," she said, with simplicity. "And I know Burke will be glad too that you have managed to make your way over here. You haven't chosen a very nice day for your visit. What a ghastly ride you must have had! What about your horse?"
"Sure, I'd given myself up for lost entirely," laughed Kelly. "And I said to St. Peter—that's my horse and the best animal bred out of Ireland—'Pete,' I said to him, 'it's a hell of a country and no place for ye at all. But if ye put your back into it, Pete, and get us out of this infernal sandpit, I'll give ye such a draught of ale as'll make ye dance on your head with delight.' He's got a taste for the liquor, has Pete. I've put him in a cowshed I found round the corner, and, faith, he fair laughed to be out of the blast. He's a very human creature, Mrs. Ranger, with the soul of a Christian, only a bit saintlier."
"I shall have to make his acquaintance," said Sylvia. "Now come in and have some refreshment! I am sure you must need it."
"And that's a true word," said Kelly, following her into the sitting-room. "My throat feels as if it were lined with sand-paper."
She rapidly cleared a place for him at the table, and ministered to his wants. His presence was so large and comforting that her own doubts and fears had sunk into the background. For a time, listening to his artless talk, she was scarcely aware of them, and she was thankful for the diversion. It had been a terrible afternoon.
He began to make enquiries regarding Burke's absence at length, and then she told him about the veldt-fires, and the menace to the land. His distress returned somewhat as she did so, and he was quick to perceive the anxiety she sought to hide.
"Now don't you worry—don't you worry!" he said. "Burke wasn't made to go under. He's one in a million. He's the sort that'll win to the very top of the world. And why? Because he's sound."
"Ah!" Sylvia said. Somehow that phrase at such a moment sent an odd little pang through her. Would Burke indeed win to the top of the world, she wondered? It seemed so remote to her now—that palace of dreams which they had planned to share together. Did he ever think of it now? She wondered—she wondered!
"Don't you worry!" Kelly said again. "There's nothing in life more futile. Is young Guy still here, by the way? Has he gone out scotching veldt-fires too?"
She started and coloured. How much did he know about Guy? How much would it be wise to impart?
Perhaps he saw her embarrassment, for he hastened to enlighten her. "I know all about young Guy. Nobody's enemy but his own. I helped Burke dig him out of Hoffstein's several weeks back, and a tough job it was. How has he behaved himself lately? Been on the bust at all?"